Reclaiming our property
The writer Naomi Klein talks in her book ‘No Logo’ about the loss of ‘public space’. Town squares, plazas, street corners, the sort of places that might have been a forum for public expression, or even protest becoming steadily more controlled by political or corporate interests, sometimes to the point where the space is actually fenced to exclude those not welcome at particular events. (Anyone who might have wished to express disagreement with American foreign policy during Barack Obama’s visit to Dublin in May would have found the city centre of heavily barricaded, a change from times when Ireland was a country where dissent was tolerated).
The process has been carried a step further by the creation of privately owned public space. The new shopping centres with their uniform selection of high street names have their own malls and their own plazas. Young people in south Dublin are as likely to go to the private space of Dundrum as the public space of Grafton Street, perhaps the spending choices made are not significantly different, though the city centre might offer a greater prospect of buying Irish goods, but the possible interactions are significantly altered. The political groups, the campaigning groups, that one might encounter on a Saturday afternoon in the city are not likely to be welcome guests in the corporately controlled malls.
The privatization of public space is not the only process that seems to continue unabated, there is now a privatization of words. Sitting at Heathrow Airport, there was a poster declaring a brand of bottled water to be the ‘official water of London 2012.’ Official water? How can you have official water? Did anyone ask the rest of the world if they agreed that this would be their water if they came to the Olympic Games? Such branding is not about sport; it is about profit.
And ‘London 2012’? Is this a trademark? And if so, who gave anyone the right to claim two common words as their own. There must be numerous events, sporting, cultural, religious, political, where the venue is London 2012, are the organizers to be challenged if they use the term ‘London 2012’ in their publicity for their events?
It might be more acceptable if the Olympic Games were a commercial endeavour where in the spirit of true capitalism private investors staked their own money in the hope of making a profit; instead, there is a situation where profits will be made by companies providing ‘official’ products, and losses – well, guess who will bear the cost of losses.
Klein’s warnings are reasonable, we are losing what was once our own. When it reaches the point when we lose even our words, things have gone too far. How about someone bottling pints of Thames Water’s best tap product and marketing it as ‘the official water of London 2012?’
Oh I hate the idea of oppressive branding having the backing of the law. It was the same in South Africa during the World Cup final when all local beers were barred from sale within a certain radius of the venues. But official water – how pathetic. I hope it is successfully subverted.
The creep of apparently public but in fact privately owned space has been insidious. True, it has spruced up a lot of dingy shopping areas and urban backwaters – in London anyway – but freedom has been undermined at the same time.
Taking a bit of a leap from that to a book I’m reading – Fixing Broken Windows, Restoring Order & Reducing Crime in our Communities by George l kelling and Catherine M Coles – there’s an interesting discussion to be had about the trade off between community order/safety and the freedom to be annoying/poor/apparently or actually homeless/deranged/etc in shared spaces. (The sort of thing Bill Bratton and Giuliani got credit for tuning around in New York.) A lot of the New york change was driven and funded by private enterprise.
Many towns and cities across Europe have beautiful public spaces without there being any need whatsoever to turn them over to private profit.